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A Return to the Smallest Country in Africa

The palm trees lining the white sandy beaches and coastal waters provide a grand entrance to The Gambia, This entrance quickly fades as one heads inland on one of the country's main roads.

Along the Brikama highway, there are scores of unfinished buildings. At first, a visitor to The Gambia will likely be excited at the seeming progress and development occurring in one of the world’s poorest nations. However, a detailed glance at these supposed “works in progress” shows the wear of time; the erosion clearly proves that these buildings, shortly after construction began, were mysteriously abandoned and left to crumble. Through many stretches along the road, the unfinished and uneven gray cement walls are as commonplace as massive termite hills.

It is impossible to visit The Gambia and leave oblivious to the countless problems facing the land and its people, many of which took root decades, if not centuries, ago. Apparently, many of these concrete skeletons the vehicle passes are the shattered dreams of groups attempting to solve at least one of these problems. Well-intentioned development organizations or even private investors — it had been explained to me by many Gambians — funded most of the construction projects. However, the spark of initial donations was coupled with poor planning, foreign leadership without the necessary insider knowledge of the culture, and no natural source of sustainable income to maintain the project — even if the building reached completeness.

Like many others who had the rare experience of visiting the smallest African country, I was moved to do something good for this country. A million ideas had passed through my mind, but one always returned. Somewhere upcountry, there was a tiny village whose women were educating themselves and turning garbage into saleable products. It was ingenious and run entirely by Gambians, with all the profits benefiting the project workers. 

Here, at one of about three stoplights in the country, was my stop to meet Isatou Ceesay, the woman who figured out how to turn trash into dalasi coins over the last decade had taught her entire village. I paid the bush taxi driver and stepped off to meet the woman with the amazingly bright smile waiting at the intersection next to a stand with ripe mangoes piled high.

Ripe mangoes. Photo by Miranda Paul.

After unwrapping a slight mint and placing it carefully on her tongue, Isatou promptly folded the clear cellophane wrapper and put it inside her purse.

“You’re not going to drop it on the ground?” I asked, astounded. 

She laughed. “No.”

This was going to be my best journey to Gambia yet.

My experiences in The Gambia ranged from sharing a cab with a 6-year-old delirious with malaria to teaching in a public high school and dinner at the President’s house. For more than four years, the hospitable Fula, Mandinka, Jola, and Wolof people of Gambia had been welcoming me into their homes. My neighbors still called me on my birthdays, and I had a young Mandinka girl baby named after me. This trip would be my gift back to the Gambian people whom I loved. I was going to act as an American spokesperson and outlet for, as best I could, simple development projects run by Gambians and had a working model of self-sufficiency.

“Salaam Alekium,” I greeted the others in formal Arabic as I joined Isatou Ceesay into a gelly-gelly, spouting black smoke from the tailpipe. The oversized van was packed with nearly thirty sweaty strangers and only one working window, topped by a roof stacked with assorted parcels, rice bags, firewood, and goats. It crawled at a pace that felt no faster than a brisk jog up the dusty road to N’jau. I gazed out the window to see a cracked, clay-colored landscape housing only occasional patches of green. It was approaching the end of June, and the rain had not yet arrived, infusing desperation in the voices of nearly every Gambian. But to live here, one had to be strong.

Over the last 30 years, Gambia's rainfall has been declining, with the current expected precipitation down almost one-third from Isatou's grandfather's generation. The brown and green landscape in front of us, The Republic of The Gambia, is the smallest country on the mainland of Africa. The villagers of N’jau, where we traveled, relied on agriculture for survival. Their plight has been harsh: only about one-fourth of Gambia’s land is suitable for farming. Much of the rural landscape is dry and clay-covered, likening arable patches of land to gold.

Village. Dry landscape. Village. Dry landscape. The scenery pattern on our journey in the stuffy gelly-gelly was so predictable that I began imagining silhouettes of large animals, the way most of my family and peers imagined the sights of my frequent trips to Africa. But there are no elephants left in The Gambia. There are no lions, no giraffes, no gazelles or rhinos. In fact, other than a sacred crocodile pool, an amazing termite population, and a handful of native species of monkeys, visitors are not likely to experience anything close to the commercialized safari tours of East Africa. Most visitors to The Gambia either hugged the beautiful Atlantic coast tightly on their “holiday,” or they were like me: inspired to action and dedicated to assisting this truly undiscovered and underdeveloped place and its many tribes, even if it meant venturing to the places without phones, clean water or even the promise of a ride back into the city.

On the radio, talk of heat warnings prompted a mandate for upcountry residents to sleep “out-of-doors” to avoid death. Schools were too few, and many were now so overpopulated that they had begun operating on double shifts, resulting in each eager student only attending a few hours every day but being required to pay the same fees. Rebel activity in the Cassamance region was flaring again. I was reminded of the million other ways one could focus empathy into action for the people of The Gambia.

When I arrived at the village, the first sound I heard was the delighted shouts of children, taking the last minutes before sunset to run and play. Several children were playing at the mission-sponsored well, pumping water up and down like a seesaw and laughing joyously as they took turns, each trying to pump faster than the last. Women began waving and greeting me, the tubabo stranger. The village had no running tap water, and in about one hour, candlelight and the moon's current phase would provide the only light to eat, work, or move about. Yet the happiness from this village seemed to radiate from its inhabitants as they shouted “Nanga Def?” and other friendly greetings in passing. It had been an arduously hot and tiresome day, but the sights and sounds of N’jau instantly rejuvenated me. 

Upon closer inspection, however, I found this village special — since exiting the gelly-gelly, I could not recall seeing any of the familiar heaps of plastic and paper trash prevalent among other Gambian villages and cities. These trash heaps, visited by goats and other foraging animals, also retained rainwater, which malaria-carrying mosquitoes found to be excellent breeding grounds. But no garbage was in N’jau anymore: Isatou's project was working.

Behind a stick-tied fence sat a simple, two-room house where Isatou grew up. We entered and dropped our things next to the burlap-covered straw mattress. Immediately, the food and fresh buckets of water arrived.

Through the night, Isatou told me her entire life story, from her father's death when she was a girl to suffering under domestic abuse when her soldier-husband returned from Liberia as a changed man. She spoke of the shame of divorce placed upon a Muslim woman with two children in her village. Despite the cultural inhibitions to refrain from addressing certain subjects, Isatou candidly and thoroughly satiated my curiosity about Gambian life, from marriage rituals to female circumcision. Isatou fearlessly shared information that most Gambian women wished they dared to share — stories that are not easy to expose and sentiments not always honored in the traditional patriarchal society.

Amid so much injustice and poverty and the onslaught of problems facing every Gambian woman — Isatou was not focused on the issues. Instead, she had spent her life working on finding real solutions. She had taught herself to read and write English so she could get outside help for the needs of her village. Isatou had found a way to turn plastic garbage into wearable strands and taught nearly 70 women to crochet purses from the discarded waste once lining their village roads. Her idea to educate, on a grassroots level, the ways one can contract HIV and AIDS was catching on from village to village. The center she helped create was transforming the village's women into confident, community-minded, and voting citizens with the potential to become real income earners.

Despite the many successes of her recycled purse project — a noticeably cleaner village, healthier livestock, and a significant reduction in malaria — the village remained isolated. Purse sales depended on cash-strapped Peace Corps volunteers and the rare visiting tourists or missionaries who ventured to N’jau. 

Again, Isatou did not focus on the problem of having no real market for their goods. She only shared a vision of what the future would hold for her village, and in the morning, promised to introduce me to the oldest woman in the village who would testify that things in N’jau took a dramatic turn for the better when the recycling group began.

In the morning, there was dancing. Inside the walls of the N’jau Skills Centre, the sounds of women expressing themselves were invigorating. Many had put on their Friday best, brightly patterned cotton dendikos with elaborate head wraps, awaiting our meeting. Someone had even pulled out a shakere and a djembe, reverberating drumming and clacking sounds. Isatou had sent messengers to inform the women that a returned American volunteer had come to share their story with women in the United States. Despite the lack of cell phones and email, word quickly spread that there would be video cameras.

Under the bantaba, a roofed outdoor gathering space, Isatou gave a rousing speech about how hard the women have been working and how their patience and perseverance have not been in vain. Although they have had passing visitors from the United States before, here stood a woman committed to a long-term Fair Trade relationship with this village and a goal of providing consistent markets for the recycled weavings until there were no more piles of plastic trash blocking school entrances or providing homes to disease-breeding mosquitoes.

Skills Centre women are holding plastic purses.

Most importantly, the women's identities and stories would inspire the project. Their names would be written inside each purse, and their stories would be told.

“Today, Mariama Sibo, a Gambian,” Isatou affectionately referred to by my host family, who gave Gambian name, “will take time to learn about each and every one of you.”

“And then, of course, she'll be taking every single one of our purses back with her to America, and paying for them in advance, so keep working!”

Cheers echoed off the cone-shaped bantaba roof.

Interview after interview, the stories of the women of N’jau were revealing. Amie, a 12-year-old girl whose mother could not afford school fees, spends a few hours while the sun is still shining after school washing and stripping the plastic bags collected at the center and subsequently crocheting coin purse-sized bags, determined to put herself through school. Another woman shared how an increase in income might help her to purchase her own cooking pots so that she could make rice for her children at the appropriate time instead of waiting to borrow one from her neighbors. A third woman said that her goal for the project was to be able to buy a goat, an animal whose worth would multiply. 

That night, after the sun had set and evening prayers were finished, I joined a small group gathered on a concrete slab in the yard, ready to sleep outside as had been advised. Though a light breeze offered some refreshment from the humid air, an almost scorching heat still radiated upward through the cement square underneath. The sky was illuminated with thousands of stars speckling a twilight dome stretching from horizon to horizon.

Here, under this very sky, Isatou first began to dream. The natural treasures I found in N’jau were the clarity of purpose and the inspiration of creation — things easily forgotten in a modern life filled with technology and other manufactured conveniences. Knowing that the beauty being witnessed at the moment would begin to fade upon my return to America, I inhaled the dusty air, memorized the songs of the crickets, and tried not to flinch as the flies tickled my ankles.

Out rolled the ataya, a loose-leaf green tea, and the traditional metal pot, and we began the long, social brewing process of this ritual tea. Lighting and fanning the charcoal, boiling the green leaves, and talking of our children, we accomplished nothing and everything simultaneously. The Centre secretary, the only man working with the recycling project, poured the cup from miniature clear glass to miniature clear glass, higher and higher each time, to mix the sugar well. “The first brew always takes the longest,” it had been explained. “ And if you are offered the first brew, it is the highest compliment.”

“Jerejef.” I thanked him, sipping the sweet, frothy cup and passing it to my fellow dreamers, who had been turning their dreams of a better life into reality, one plastic bag at a time. 

The women of the village did not want fame or fortune. Their dreams were realistic. They wanted cooking pots, goats, and education, and they wanted to provide them for themselves with dignity. They were doing everything literally in their power to change their own lives. What they told me they wanted was opportunity and real income. The African stars have a way of reminding onlookers of their smallness and greatness.

On the return to the more urban areas of Gambia, where the unfinished buildings line the horizon instead of oversized animal silhouettes, the road looked different. Instead of seeing large piles of plastic trash, I saw future sites for collection barrels. The gelly-gelly's slow movement only made me laugh, giving me the needed time to flesh out a plan for my return to America to tell the stories of N’jau. It was time to figure out ways to emulate Isatou–to think of action in terms of the solution, not the problem. The women of N’jau inspired me to think differently about Gambia’s afflictions and every situation I have since faced. The vastness of the African sky wisely reminded me to be humble and to listen. The brilliance of the thousand shining stars the night before reminded me of the world’s many great people with whom I could build and work together to accomplish something extraordinary.


One year after this visit, Amie was still in school full-time, Fatou had received her cooking pots, and Incha had yet to receive just one but three goats. In A Better Footprint's Main Street shop window that summer, a sign read, “She's got her goat!” echoing the lighthearted demeanor of the amazing mothers of N’jau, Gambia. The recycling project has spread to three other villages, with plastic bag collection happening at several sites throughout The Gambia.

For More Info

Travelers looking for a customized cultural experience and independent travel options for hotels, car rentals, etc., in The Gambia are encouraged to check out Gambia Tours.

More information about The Gambia’s climate, geography, and political history can be found at The World Factbook.

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